Saturday, March 21, 2015

Get Me in the Sound

Rene Chun at Wired has a nice long piece on a guy who sells some used records for several hundred dollars and some for a thousand. He'd like to price them all between a thousand and $1,500, he says, but the customers wouldn't go for it.

These pressings aren't necessarily autographed or rare, or if they are those features don't make up the bulk of the bulky sticker price. They're what's called "hot stampers." Sound in vinyl records is encoded in the grooves, which are played when the turntable needle moves over them at the proper speed. The grooves are pressed or stamped into blank vinyl discs, and like all mechanical systems the stampers were subject to wearing out. Records pressed earlier in a stamping run were more likely to have grooves that are cleaner and more accurately reproduce the full range of the sound.

The guy in the story processes his record finds with some powerful cleaning and vacuuming equipment before a group of experts listen to the record in order to grade its quality. Each side may be given its own distinct grade, and notes on the album cover might even suggest whether some songs on a side sound better than others do. Serious purchasers might buy more than one copy of an album in order to get the best versions of all the songs on it. And when you're talking $500 or so, that will add up.

The story also outlines how the guy behind the store rips on other modern versions of vinyl that have been a part of the medium's comeback, and how some of those folks respond with turned-up noses at his ratings, rankings and work.

I'm on record (heh) that this is all silliness to me. Too many loud concerts have helped my ears have trouble distinguishing all of the Vitally! Important! Distinctions! that are supposed to be in all of this stuff. Those distinctions themselves may be a whole lot of suggestion bias: When you're told a particular copy of a record sounds much much better than what you've been listening to and you agree to part with a few Ben Franklins in order to acquire it, the chances are pretty good that you're going to believe it sounds better. Sure, a good LP sounds better than an MP3 file, but 1) almost everything does and 2) the idea that there is an experience of listening to some record that's "worth" four figures is a product of a mindset that is so far removed from the everyday reality most people live in that it ought to draw its own "Occupy" protest.

But people have the right to dispose of their own money, and I've probably spent some of mine on things that others would regard as just as frivolous. They are more than welcome to call me a dolt for doing so. After all, they're just the little people who don't understand my genius, so what do I care?

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